2009 Cadillac Presidential Limousine.

The Wheels of Power: The Origin of the State Car

In the first piece in our series exploring the unique automobiles that have been pressed to the task of safely transporting world leaders, U.S. Navy officer and Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s resident car enthusiast, Anthony Clay explores the origins of the State Car, from its roots in horse-drawn carriages and steam trains through to the rolling fortresses of today.

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A few months ago, I was sent an infographic by Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s Editor containing the vast majority of the State Cars driven by the leaders of the world’s governments, and it seemed like a good topic in which to delve to explore some of the nuances and details of the geopolitical world. In its most basic form, a State Car is the official car in which the head of state is driven; while the head of state may have several or more cars at his or her disposal, this is typically the one reserved for official functions.

From Horses to Horsepower

The official car has roots reaching back thousands of years to animal drawn carriages. Watch any recreation of ancient European royalty, and you will likely see a gilded carriage. As the technology of transportation increased, there were changes in how principals moved both throughout their territory and internationally. Starting in the 1836, led by William Henry Harrison in his first, albeit unsuccessful bid, American presidential candidates had train cars set up to move from city to city and provide a stage from which to give their stump speeches. Given the vast size of the continental United States, it is unsurprising that its government was among the first to see the value of railway-based transportation for politicians. Concurrently, steam ships carried presidents and kings to summits and conferences worldwide, eventually leading to aeroplanes becoming the preferred method of international travel. But through all of this, the carriage, and eventually the car, was the central method of moving leadership figures.

When the first cars were developed in the 1880s in Germany, they were neither faster nor more luxurious than their horse drawn counterparts. It took many years for the automobile to catch up, especially in the luxury accommodation that was expected by these specialist passengers. William McKinley became the first American president to ride in a car, in a 1901 Stanley Steam car. Steam cars were also used in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration by the secret service, but Roosevelt refused to ride in one himself, preferring the horses on which he established his reputation during the Spanish American War. In 1909 William Howard Taft became the first American president with an automobile at his disposal after he directed the purchase of four cars and converted the White House stables into garages. With two Pierce-Arrows, a White Motor Company steam car, and a Baker electric car, there seems to have been a desire to try all of the burgeoning automotive technologies.

Pierce Arrow

Fig 1.0 – President Taft’s Pierce Arrow

Soon, it became a way for automobile producers to earn favour from their head of state, and likewise, an opportunity for that head of state to show off the work of their nation on the world stage. American presidents have always had American cars, British and Germans have also done the same. As their industries have grown, the Japanese, French, and even the South Koreans have done the same.

The US President had influence for many years over the choice of vehicle used for their transportation, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to have a car custom built to Secret Service specifications. His Lincoln V-12, nicknamed “Sunshine Special,” had positions for agents to ride on running boards, a siren and flashing lights, and a two-way radio. In spite of previous assassination attempts, it retained a convertible roof. After the start of World War II, armour and bullet resistant glass was added as further protection. From this point onward, the American president has travelled in custom built cars with an ever-expanding repertoire of protective features and communications, all sourced from one of the “Big 3” American automakers of General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler. Since 1984 however, all of the president’s cars have been Cadillacs.

The Germans are a nation to have particularly mastered the concept of the State Car. In 1892 Daimler sold its first car to the Sultan of Morocco. By the time Adolf Hitler emerged as a rising political player, Mercedes-Benz had established itself as a premier maker of luxury automobiles fit for the most demanding clientele. Mercedes-Benz survived associations with the government of Nazi Germany to go on to become a major exporter to heads of state all around Europe, Asia, and Africa. This culminated with the 600 Grosser in 1963. The 600 was built to directly compete against Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Cadillac, and instantly became a symbol of power. Notable geopolitically-important owners have included Idi Amin, Leonid Brezhnev, Mao Zedong, Sadam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, and the Pope. North Korea’s first president Kim Il Sung purchased several 600s and they are still in active service for his grandson today. Today Germany continues this tradition with all of their key automakers providing off the shelf solutions for high level protective transportation with security and other systems included from the factory.

Fig 2.0 – General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in his Mercedes-Benz 600

With many options available without the development and tooling costs of a specialist armoured vehicle, a small handful of automobile producing countries do not use a domestically produced vehicle as a State Car. Brazil, which has produced Volkswagens since 1953 uses predominately American cars. Malaysia, home to Proton, has domestically produced cars for the Prime Minister, while the royal family ride in some of the finest European automobiles. As an unusual intermediate solution, Canada uses American car models produced in Canada, most recently a Cadillac.

In the coming articles in this series I will delve into some of the other areas of State Cars and their influence on and reaction to geopolitics. I will discuss some of the ways these cars have played a part in and shaped history, the economics behind the cars, and some analysis of the cars currently in use by heads of state all over the world.

Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:

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Anthony Clay is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy who has served in every operational fleet, and most geographic Combatant Commands. He has an International Relations Degree from Tulane University and a Operations Research Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. Anthony is currently assigned to a staff posting within a numbered fleet.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Image credits: Cover image – U.S. Secret Service // Pierce Arrow image – Library of Congress

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